20 Lessons Learned from Jay Wright

Here are 20 lessons learned from Jay Wright after reading his book Attitude. The book came out after the school’s 2016 championship, but obviously the principles and ideas were instrumental in their success during their championship run this past season.

  1. Plays are a nice blueprint, but the frenetic pace of action can cause Xs and Os to take a backseat to execution on a particular play. Very rare are the plays that go exactly as scripted, so it’s on the players to use their instincts and improvise – within the framework of the system of course.
  2. Villanova knew what they were doing with one to three seconds left, four to seven seconds left, and eight to twelve seconds left. They practiced it all the time and usually with the least amount of time left. I feel like this is worth the time because it is the difference between a win and a loss (both offensively and defensively) and because it is something that can be applied at the end of quarters in addition to the end of game.
  3. “Shoot em up, sleep in the streets.” This is common vernacular at Villanova to encourage everyone to take big shots. If a player misses the game winner (see 1:45 of the link), they need to be willing to live with it.
  4. After a tournament loss, you are a first responder more than a coach. Great line.
  5. Use extreme caution in letting players watch an upcoming opponent. Villanova did this the year before their first title and it may have caused some disillusionment from the team about how good that team was. Getting your team to the Goldilocks point of not disrespecting and not worshiping their upcoming opponent is a challenge that might not be worth the reward.
  6. Similarly, use extreme caution as a coach when scouting in tournament scenarios. Coach Wright ended up playing a team that won it’s opening round game late after trailing throughout. In the back of his mind, he wandered if this caused him to underestimate that team.
  7. “In our program, we share the basketball. That’s just what we do. And it works for us.” Sometimes we try to be too fine in exploiting mismatches. In doing so, certain players become aggressive to a fault and others passive to a fault. I also see this becoming a mantra for our team to get away from over-dribbling and the ego mentality of getting points.
  8. “What is a Villanova guard? In our minds, he’s skilled enough to handle the basketball – pass or shoot it. He can make plays for his teammates or create a shot for himself. On defense, he’s tenacious and eager to battle with his opponent no matter if he is 5’ 10” or 6’10”.” Giving a definition of a guard is brilliant for players over the long term. The offensive requirements fit well with the philosophy of why they share the ball. The words tenacious and eager create an empowering image.
  9. Preach aggressiveness early in the year. It will allow you to share the basketball and optimize everyone’s abilities. You can always dial it back later in the season, but to do it the other way around is a much greater challenge.
  10. Use the best teams as a measuring stick. The year before Villanova won their first national championship, Duke cut down the nets. Coach Wright asked how far his team was from that level. That’s just one more way of selling the idea that April through October is where champions are made.
  11. “When he couldn’t make a basket, Arch did everything else a player could do. He found his teammates with crisp passes. He dug in defensively and dove for loose balls. He kept his composure. He never gave up.” Regardless of what a program preaches, it seems that more often than not a player’s peers, teachers, and parents are always going to come back to ‘How many points did you score?’ With that type of emphasis this is a great line to radically upgrade an off night into simply an off-shooting night.
  12. Stay positive with players when they are at their most vulnerable points. Coach Wright did this with players as they traveled back across the country after getting blown out by Oklahoma. A few months later, Villanova had a 67-point turnaround against the Sooners at the Final Four.
  13. Postseason success is a poor barometer for overall season success. The media and our culture today is very demanding of athletes to be champions and they actually can be harsher on teams and players that can’t “get over the hump.” This is a hard societal pressure to shake free from, but the reality is that each moment matters. The journey of getting better is daily and in the life of a college athlete (of in my case high school athlete) those days add up to four years really quickly. There should be joy in that journey every single day.
  14. Villanova celebrates their hustle play of the game with a two to three minute film clip and the player who earned that honor gets to choose the song in the background. I like the idea of a player picking a song even if we cannot slice together highlight clips the day after because of the quick turnaround.
  15. Rules around Christmas. First of all, the last game before Christmas, remind players that their minds can wander and players in the past have had this issue and it has caused the team to miss the mark on its potential. Second, challenge players as a homework assignment to write a few brief Christmas cards thanking someone in their lives.
  16. In games where you suspect you are the underdog, it is often the case that you believe your team must shoot well from three. Or in games where your team is getting their tails whipped, players might resort to rushing threes. Both of these are signs that you need to communicate that you should stay away from trying to outscore the opponent and insist on getting stops. Sure, the two statements sound like they accomplish the same goal, but they create two totally different mindsets.
  17. Before games, make it an expectation that everyone has their eyes locked on the speaker. There is to be no joking. Historically, this is an easy one for my team to follow. For about two games. Then one moment of lost focus goes uncorrected and before you know it we have just created a habit that hampers our preparation. If necessary, players that are not focused in the moments before a game should not play the opening moments of the game. It’s not a penalty to an individual. It’s a solution for a team.
  18. Late in the season, one day of rest is more critical than one more day of practice. Physically, there is no explanation needed, but there are mental benefits too. Teams typically have a higher ratio of games to practices at the end of the season. Then for teams fortunate enough to qualify for the post-season there is a lull period where teams could be off for a week or more before their next game. Players are unaccustomed to preparing for a single game for this long, so why break their routine mentally? This also gives coaches time to recharge.
  19. After a great win, prepare for the next game by telling them in the locker room the margin of victory won’t carry over into the next game.
  20. If you are prepared, talented, and lucky enough that a great result (upset victory, division title, sectional championship, etc.) does happen, remind the players that the accomplishment cannot define them. It’s only basketball. Their was and still is to be a great person.

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